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Green is reclaiming its space

Six months after the fire, nature is springing back at Griffith Park. But urban pressures could slow its recovery.

November 05, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Season after season, Park Ranger Al Garcia has hiked to this clearing in Fern Canyon to teach schoolchildren about plants and wildlife.

He would stand under this very tree and point to the "Z" that some thoughtless hiker had carved in the bark. That was no way to treat a tree, he told them.

Today, the graffiti tree stands misshapen and discolored in a forest blackened by the May 8 wildfire that swept one-quarter of Griffith Park. When Garcia returned Thursday afternoon, he found the Fern Canyon Nature Trail seemingly bereft of its ferns and barely recognizable.

But nearby, a bouquet of green leaves was bursting forth like mistletoe on one scraggly oak tree limb. When the children return, Garcia will have fresh lessons to teach.

In Griffith Park, it's beginning to look a lot like spring.

Six months after the fire, Los Angeles' great urban park is a template for renewal.

Primeval natural cycles normally associated with wilderness are now in motion in the over-hiked canyons and on hillsides squeezed by golf courses and homes.

A park that some Angelenos visit mostly to enjoy children's train rides and zoo animals is displaying its wild side.

Slopes turned into moonscapes last spring are now studded with pockets of greenery. Park rangers are encouraged by signs of deer, coyotes and opossums returning to the 1,200-acre burn area.

They warn, however, that Griffith Park remains an island of open land in one of the continent's largest megalopolises. The normal process of fire recovery, they say, could be derailed by all sorts of urban pressures.

Over-eager hikers could go off trail and damage fragile new plants or send soil pouring downhill. The careless could flick cigarette ashes on paper-dry grasses. Vegetation from far-off Madagascar and South Africa could grab moisture and space from native Southern California plants.

That is why the city's Department of Recreation and Parks is keeping most of the burn area off-limits and many popular trails closed, despite protests from some hikers and others, officials said. Experts advise that the closings are essential, said parks environmental specialist Peggy Nguyen.

"They say that if we don't keep it closed, that all of our recovery efforts are useless," she said Friday.

Garcia calls the burn area a sanctuary, a place where stressed animals and damaged plant life can recuperate.

Behind the locked gates, it has become a secret garden of sorts.

Minus hikers and children, the familiar trails seem abnormally quiet. Only a woodpecker's peck-peck-peck intrudes.

Clusters of oak leaves gleam like ornaments in blackened branches. New shoots encircle the base of a scorched redwood. Spears of native rye grass stand out against ashen gray hills.

"I've seen deer, some rabbits, fox-tailed squirrels," Garcia said. "I've seen lizards returning, and ground squirrels that burrow into the ground."

A coyote moved through the roadside brush as Garcia drove a white Recreation and Parks truck on a trail near Bee Rock. A red-tailed hawk soared overhead.

It was here, near Bee Rock, where Garcia, 39, a 15-year ranger, stood with his fellow rangers May 8 to fend off the massive fire as it tore through the hills. He spent 12 days fighting the blaze and cleaning up.

Now he has mixed feelings as he crisscrosses the burn area and returns to familiar haunts such as the Fern Canyon Amphitheater.

The amphitheater's wooden sign is gone, burned in the fire. The open-air classroom where hundreds of children sat over the years is eerily empty. The earth along the nearby nature trail is coated with ash and a mint-green substance called hydro mulch to prevent landslides.

"I kind of feel sad to see it that way, the trees just kind of falling on top of the podium, the benches made of logs all burned," Garcia said.

"But at the same time, I know it can all be rebuilt."

One challenge is the weather. Heavy winter rains could unleash severe erosion and landslides on slopes left barren of trees and plants.

That is why the city spent an estimated $2 million last month to spread about 500 acres of seed-free hydro mulch via helicopter.

But that poses a conundrum. Too little rain could mean that new plant shoots will shrivel and seeds that germinate only after fires might remain dormant.

There is also the nasty problem of alien plants.

Griffith Park is a cornucopia of plants from outside California. Its hills bristle with veldt grasses from South Africa, pampas grasses from South America and ripgut grass dating from the days when ranchers tried to turn wild chaparral into pasture.

Although those grasses will resprout in the rains, they are ill-equipped to deal with Los Angeles' hot, dry summers. As they die, they will leave behind fodder for more wildfires next year.

Other brazen nonnatives are on display. South American tree tobacco grows tall alongside native wild cucumber vines. The moist banks of a small arroyo are thick with castor bean and cocklebur.

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